FV-77 | Visual Attraction Effect

Visual Attraction Effect

Prof. M. Brendl, Dr. O. Atasoy


Research Topic 
When making a decision one inherently makes a trade-off between pros and cons of two choice options. Consider choosing between two gourmet olive oil bottles, one of 1l for 70 CHF and the other of 100ml for 7 CHF. One lasts longer, the other costs less. The attraction effect suggests an unexpected but remarkable influence on how people trade off: Adding a third option, so unattractive that it is not chosen (e.g., .75l for 70 CHF), will increase the number of people who choose the large bottle. 

Because nobody chooses the third option it is called a decoy. The decoy resembles one of the two initial options (both 70 CHF), but is distinctly less attractive (7.5l instead of 1l). A grocery store that wants to increase the sales of a bigger bottle might thus display a decoy as just described, or as shown in the image below. Shifting preferences toward an object without altering its features (e.g., quality) has enormous practical implications for marketing of goods and services. 

This effect has fascinated researchers across social sciences and has been dubbed one of the most successful exports from academic marketing . It features in popular science books, newspapers, and is taught in MBA classes. The effect has been replicated many times and thus seemed strong and robust, but despite extensive efforts, there is, as of yet, no clear, agreed upon explanation for it. 

Statement of the Problem 
A team from Yale University recently published data that led them to an astounding conclusion: “outside the most abstract contexts, we find no evidence for this effect.” Specifically, they claimed that the attraction effect occurs only if the information about the options is presented as numbers, as in our example above, and it does not occur when people observe the options visually. According to them, the image below would not generate the effect, and thus our grocery store would fail at using it, but the numeric example above would generate the effect. These authors suggest that the attraction effect is much less important than was previously thought because it can only be observed under highly unrealistic setups where the information about objects are provided as two pairs of numbers, whereas in real-world settings people typically observe products visually. This sparked a furious debate as some authors who previously investigated the attraction effect raised their objections. No one, however, has managed to replicate those few studies that have demonstrated the effect with visuals. 

Our aim is to demonstrate that the attraction effect can occur visually and to improve our understanding for why the effect occurs (or does not occur), thereby paving the way for successful practical implementations of the effect. 

This is a very important topic because of its practical applicability to a wide range of choice situations as well as its importance in the academic literature. The effect has deep implications for understanding choices. The failure to produce visual attraction effects remains mysterious. Therefore, this project has the potential to be highly impactful in the academic literature.